Town hall launches major inquiry into river sewage
STOCKPORT council has launched an official inquiry into water companies pumping sewage into rivers.
It comes after official figures revealed that United Utilities (UU) spewed waste into the River Mersey a ‘staggering’ 977 times last year and was responsible for 13,373 hours of sewage discharges into borough waterways.
UU - responsible for water and wastewater services across the north west - says these ‘overflows’ help prevent flooding by acting as a ‘pressure relief valve to the sewerage network. They are regulated by the Environment Agency.
The firm adds that it invested £1.2bn on reducing the amount of waste it discharges into rivers up to 2020, and is pumping in an extra £230m before 2025.
Councillor Lisa Smart, chair of the inquiry - which the Lib Dem administration believes is the first of its type in the UK - fears the issue ‘risks ruining our treasured rivers forever.’
She said: “People in Stockport are furious local people fear walking their dogs along our local rivers and streams such as the Mersey, the Goyt and Poise Brook. We also have otters who live in the area and are being forced to swim in foul sewage. This is a national scandal. If the government won’t act, then we will.”
The first public meeting of the inquiry began with representatives from UU answering questions on the ‘eye-watering number of sewage dumps.’
Coun Mark Roberts asked for reassurance that Stockport’s rivers and streams were safe for children and pets to play in, or residents to swim in - particularly after heavy rain has led to sewer overflows.
He also told Werneth area committee meeting how he and Coun Smart had canoed up the Mersey as part of a fundraising event last summer.
“It was a bit of an eyeopener I must admit when we did that and seeing loo roll hanging from the trees where there had been high water - and the smells as you passed through certain parts of the rivercourse,” he said.
“The Mersey is a river that’s used for watersports it’s one of the few that’s allocated as being acceptable for people to canoe. My understanding is you can canoe through the back end of Stockport and all the way through Manchester.”
Mark Sewell, of United Utilities, said the legislation and regulation the company works to is based around ‘the local aquatic ecology and aquatic life,’ not protecting humans who may swim in those waters.
“From a human bathing perspective, bacteria such as E.Coli and intestinal enterococci, that’s what will cause sickness and gastro problems after bathing,” he said. We don’t have any bathing water drivers or bathing water standards for our wastewater discharges that discharge to rivers.”
He added that there are only two designated inland river bathing waters in the UK - one in Ilkley and the other in Oxfordshire.
“These are areas where public support [and] local authority applications have led to sections of the river being designated as bathing water. That designation has then helped to drive and facilitate improvements within that catchment.”
In response, Coun Roberts said he was surprised as things that are not good for people tend not to be good for animals and wildlife - and felt a river designated for leisure use should meet human safety standards.
Mr Sewell said it was important to note the ‘context’ that UUs 2025 to 2030 investment programme ran to ‘multiple billions of pounds’ - its biggest ever while the firm was currently ploughing £800m into improvements.
“Maybe [consider] some scale around the level of pay versus what actual investment is taking place,” he said. “In terms of the balance between shareholders and the environment, yes, it’s a balance we need to take, and it’s a difficult one, but that is the same for any privatised water company.”
He added that ‘shareholder confidence’ enabled UU to fund long-term, multi-million improvement programmes.
United Utilities issued an official comment following the meeting.
A spokesperson said: “We were pleased to have the opportunity to discuss our operations with local councillors and we all agree a partnership approach is required to tackle river water quality in the region.
“By 2025, we will have invested £75m improving wastewater treatment across Stockport’s Mersey catchment. This includes new technology to improve the quality of the treated water going back into the Goyt and Tame.
“We know there is more to be done and that’s why we’ve launched our Better Rivers: Better Northwest programme. As part of this, we are investing an additional £230m to improve 184km of waterways and reduce the number of times storm overflows operate across the North West. We won’t stop there and from 2025, we will be going even further - with one of the biggest environmental improvement programmes ever delivered.”